City to hold public hearing Aug. 10 on topics of police advisory, race equity

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo

BEMIDJI --The city of Bemidji will hold a meeting in August to discuss and hear from residents about what a police advisory committee should look like and how the community can achieve race equity.

During the city's Public Affairs Committee meeting Monday, City Manager Nate Mathews said he and Police Chief Mike Mastin had been researching the idea of creating an advisory committee to discuss policies and reforms for law enforcement. Mathews said his office has also received phone calls recently about the topic.

For Mastin, the concept of such a committee has been something he's carried for much longer.

"My desire is engagement from everyone in our community and transparency," Mastin said. "I want people to see what we do, why we do it and how we do it. And, we want to hear from everybody on how we can do it better."

Along with police operations, Mathews said it may also be worth exploring either incorporating the subject of race equity into the new advisory committee, or creating a separate board to handle the discussion.


In her comments, Ward 4 Council member Emelie Rivera said the subject of race equity needs some place in any sort of police committee.

"The topic of addressing equity is much bigger and it will take a lot of time," Rivera said. "But, if we don't make that part of the discussion (in a police advisory committee), we're really not going to get very far."

After more discussion on the subject, the Public Affairs Committee chose to get public comment, and input from the whole council at a work session on Aug. 10. The meeting will serve as an opportunity for citizens to share ideas for a police committee and initiatives for race equity. To allow space for social distancing, the committee recommended having the work session at the city-owned Sanford Center.

"I'm really grateful that we're having this conversation and starting the process," Rivera said. "I'm hopeful that this is going to continue to move forward and grow, because this issue of equity and justice is huge in the community and it's something I've been trying to address."

Discussions like the one at the Public Affairs Committee isn't unique to Bemidji, as the topic of police reform has become an issue nationwide. The matter has come up after the death of George Floyd on May 25. Floyd was a Black man who died after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd's neck, despite his repeated requests for the officer to stop.

In the weeks following Floyd's death, government units have started evaluating police department operations across the state and country. Ward 3 Council member Ron Johnson, who's also a member of the League of Minnesota Cities, said municipalities have been reaching out to the organization about policing initiatives.

"The League is already looking into best practices and getting requests from a number of cities throughout the state," Johnson said. "My guess is it's going to be a focus as we move into the next year, and I think the League can be a good resource for us moving forward."

At the state government level, discussions of police reform did reach the Minnesota Legislature, but the recent special session ended with no legislation on the subject.

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